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Colonialism—the process by which a powerful country takes possession of a weaker one for economic or military gain—had a profound effect on the Islamic world. In some instances, permanent settlers were sent to colonies along with colonial administrators. Such territories were considered to be an integral part of the mother country and might eventually be given some local self-government. Territories that were directly controlled by the colonial power were considered by the colonial powers as formal parts of their respective empires. Thus, the term colonialism may be used interchangeably, in many cases, with the word imperialism. While the term imperialism may have been—or might still be—regarded by some with a degree of respectability for its introduction of European institutions (such as parliamentary government), the term colonialism generally has been viewed from the vantage point of those territories and peoples who have been colonized or exploited.

Establishing Colonial Rule.

By the 1700s, several European nations had emerged as world powers. Technological advances had greatly increased their military strength, and the Industrial Revolution had given them the ability to manufacture goods more cheaply and efficiently than ever before. With industry growing, Europeans needed raw materials, such as cotton, that they could not produce in their own countries. They also sought new markets for their products. With the decline of the Ottoman Empire, Europeans had little difficulty invading nations that could provide necessary materials. They weakened native industries, forcing workers to produce goods for Western factories and creating a need for European imports.

In 1798 the French invaded Egypt, and other European powers rushed to the region to take their share. Britain took over India, Palestine, Iraq, and part of the Sudan and took Egypt from the French. The French then colonized Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. Russia took over Muslim lands in Central Asia. The Dutch moved into Indonesia, and Italy seized Libya, Ethiopia, and parts of Somalia. The colonizers of Islamic lands tended to view their subjects as either inferior or as “noble savages” who possessed a purity and innocence that the Europeans lacked.

Colonial Power

This chart lists European powers and the Muslim countries that were under their colonial rule. Independent, noncolonial Muslim states with major Muslim populations include Afghanistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Yemen.

Great Britain
Bahrain Gambia Malaysia Sierra Leone
Bangladesh India Maldives South Yemen
Brunei Iraq Nigeria Sudan
Cyprus Jordan Pakistan Tanzania
Egypt Kuwait Qatar United Arab Emirates
Algeria Comoros Lebanon Niger
Burkina-Faso Djibouti Mali Senegal
Central African Guinea Mauritania Syria
 Republic Ivory Coast Morocco Tunisia
Netherlands [Dutch]
Libya Ethiopia Somalia
Western Sahara
Albania Kazakhstan Tajikistan Uzbekistan
Azerbaijan Kyrgyzstan Turkmenistan

Effects of Colonization.

To maintain order and advance their interests, Europeans imposed harsh laws and crushed any threats to their rule. They also ridiculed Islamic traditions and practices. For example, the British applied the term caliph, one of the most important titles in Islamic society, to refer to Muslims who held low positions, such as barbers. They used the term mullah (cleric) to refer to common workers. Colonization also led to an influx of missionaries who denounced Islam as a false religion and encouraged Muslims to convert to Christianity.

European rule had some benefits. In Egypt, for example, the British built railroads, increased the amount of arable land, and improved tax collection processes. European powers, however, structured colonial economies for their own benefit, showing little concern for the consequences their actions might have on the population. British reforms in Egypt slowed the growth of industry and left the economy almost completely dependent on cotton exports.

European powers eliminated Islamic studies from school curricula, and in India, the British made English the official language. Colonial governments used the local education system to instill Western values into the population and to train low-level employees to serve the colonial bureaucracy.

Muslims Respond to Colonial Rule.

Muslims responded to imperialism in a variety of ways. Many fell into poverty and opposed colonial rule. Some believed that a return to Islamic roots would build strength and unity in the Muslim world. Others viewed modern reform as the key to restoring their power. By the mid-1900s, nationalism emerged as the primary response to colonization. Muslims increasingly sought to establish and govern their own nation-states.

Colonial powers began to falter after World War I ( 1914 – 1919 ) when the losing countries (Italy and Germany) had to relinquish their colonies to the winners (France and Great Britain). The League of Nations, the predecessor of the United Nations, designated these colonies administrative units called mandates with the understanding that the mandatory powers (the victors) would help prepare them for eventual independence. In effect, it represented a continuation of colonialism under the guise of liberalism.

The Western grip on its colonies was further weakened after World War II ( 1939 – 1945 ), when Europe lay in ruins. No longer able to maintain their empires, the European powers allowed the colonies to establish their own governments. By the 1960s, most had succeeded. The countries of Central Asia—Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan—were the last to gain their independence, which occurred in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The effects of European imperialism continue to plague Islamic nations in the early twenty-first century. Because colonial governments neglected the education of their Muslim subjects, many areas still suffer from intense poverty. Islamic governments struggle to build their economies and compete in the global marketplace. The growth of the oil industry has helped some Islamic nations to become prosperous. Scores of Muslims, however, retain deep resentments against Europe and the United States for their imperialist actions. This bitterness remains a barrier to the establishment of closer ties between Islamic and Western nations. See also Christianity and Islam; Education; Modernism; Nationalism.

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